VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Legion of Christ religious order, discredited years ago by its pedophile founder, has elected an American priest as its new superior as it seeks to recover from new sex abuse and cover-up scandals that have renewed calls for it to be disbanded.
The Rev. John Connor, 51, is the first American to lead the Mexico-based order. His election Thursday was a sign that the Legion’s heavily Mexican hierarchy realized it needed to send a signal that it is changing course, 10 years after it first promised reform.
Among Legion priests, Connor is seen as a reformer. But he has also been accused of mishandling a case of a priest accused by several women of crossing physical and emotional boundaries in the U.S. The priest was only recently removed from ministry even though initial reports about his behavior were received in 2017.
Connor, who has been in charge of the Legion in North America since 2014, has apologized for those who were hurt. And he has acknowledged that the Legion overall has not handled abuse cases properly and must now “wade through the sins of our past” to try to regain the trust of the faithful.
The Vatican took the Legion over in 2010 after determining that its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, sexually abused at least 60 seminarians, fathered at least three children, and built a cult-like order to hide his crimes.
The papal delegate named to run the Legion, the late Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, was given broad powers to purify the order of Maciel’s toxic influences and renew it. But during four years of reform, De Paolis focused on rewriting the order’s constitutions and refused to reopen covered-up cases of sex abuse involving other Legion priests.
Those cases are now coming to light, casting doubts on the Vatican’s reform. Victims have lashed out at how they have been ignored; former members have revealed their own cases of psychological abuses at the hands of Legion priests still in power. The Mexican bishops conference has demanded change. And even onetime supporters have questioned whether the Vatican shouldn’t have suppressed the order 10 years ago when the option was on the table.
“I am starting to reevaluate my hope that the Legion can be reformed,” the U.S. moral theologian Janet E. Smith wrote this week in the National Catholic Register.
Connor was elected during a weekslong assembly of Legion leaders from around the world, which has been dominated by the new abuse crisis. A focus of discussions was a Dec. 21 in-house report that found 33 Legion priests and 71 seminarians had abused minors, in addition to Maciel and his 60 victims. A third of the abuser priests were themselves victims of abuse.
The Legion has now vowed to be more focused on survivors. It previously mounted a yearslong campaign to discredit Maciel’s original victims and delayed compensating those who came forward in 2018.
In its statement announcing Connor’s election, the Legion said it was committed to charting a new course, “with hearts and minds focused on the victims,… to analyze the magnitude of the damage done, the intensity of the suffering inflicted, the causes, and the consequences.”